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How Hard Do I Have to Work?

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By Head Coach Jason Struck

As coaches, James, Mike, and I are often confronted with questions about how long certain accomplishments will take, or whether or not they are possible, or why they haven’t happened yet. We do our best to reiterate that everyone starts at a different point when they walk through the doors of Full Circle. Some have played sports before, lifted significant weights or run great distances, but most, if not all, have never done CrossFit before, and in some ways everyone is starting at zero.

For the “too long, didn’t read” crowd, let me offer a simple rule of thumb. “How hard do I have to work to get X?” If you haven’t achieved X yet, and you’ve been doing Y things consistently for Z time, then the answer is either Y was wrong, or Y was too small. Let me phrase that as simply as possible. If you haven’t gotten what you were looking for thus far, you are going to have to work harder (maybe smarter, probably both) than you were.

Concrete example: “Why can’t I do a pull up? I’ve been practicing pull ups twice a week, and my diet only has one cheat day per week.” Easy. Try three days of practice per week and one cheat meal per week. “My deadlift hasn’t gone up in a year!” Ok. How often do you deadlift, and how often do you do strength training? Have you done any outside of class?

While it’s easy to see where all that is going, it bears repeating and elaborating, because every day we find that an athlete either has unrealistic expectations about their rate of progress (in both over and underestimating the difficulty or their own performance) as well as clients who simply don’t know where to begin with goal setting or what their expectations should be. We hope to offer a starting place here, in this article.

First, if your principal concern is simply ‘health’ or ‘fitness,’ you would be wise to further refine your definition of such things. For the sake of clarity, I will use the definition of fitness put forth by CrossFit: “Increased work capacity across broad time and modal domains.” You measure that in any variable you want, but the easiest would be aggregating benchmark WODs. Pick 3 different ones with wildly different movements and time domains. Here’s an example: Grace, Jackie, and Murph. Good times on these benchmarks are approximately 3, 9, and 35 minutes. They incorporate a moderate load ground-to-overhead, rowing, pull ups and light thrusters, and long runs and calisthenics. Pretty good spread, but you could choose whichever details you want. But in order to get better at all three of these benchmarks at the same time, you’re going to have to focus on CrossFit broadly and inclusively, and the name of the game is probably going to be better power output in the 10-20 minute range, like many typical AMRAP WODs can be. In this example, accumulating volume will be necessary to prepare you for 30+ reps of a single movement, or very long WODs like Murph. Here, there’s no substitute for attending CrossFit classes. And the more the merrier. If you want to maximize your rate of progress in this goal, you should do as many WODs per week as you can tolerate.

How much work can I really tolerate? Well, that’s where this whole thing gets way more sophisticated. The short answer is, start small, measure, and keep adding. Your recovery rate and work capacity will be affected by your age, sleep and stress levels, nutrition status, cardiovascular fitness, dedication to recovery modalities and training age, experience, and prior volume accumulation. One thing is for certain: Higher qualified athletes are always doing more work year over year than they did before in order to continue progressing, and you must, too.

Are you new to CrossFit? Start with at least 2 classes per week, but spread them out evenly. After your first week or two, bump it up to 3 classes. One-two training sessions is sufficient to maintain a fitness capacity, but probably not to increase fitness unless you are very unfit. Once you get to 2 or 3 sessions, then you are more likely to be accumulating progress. Let me repeat that: You probably won’t get better with fewer than 3 days per week unless you are very unhealthy. The time between bouts is your recovery time, and you can make this time shorter by proactively speeding up your recovery (with a variety of modalities, such as contrast baths, massage, low intensity cardio work, etc.) You will also recover more quickly from stresses that you are becoming more accustomed to. So, eventually move to 4 sessions per week, and then 5 will be possible. This will entail training several consecutive days throughout the week, and that’s exactly what the HQ prescription calls for: 3 days on, 1 day off. CrossFit workouts are typically varied enough that you can participate in the second day in a row because it’s unrelated or general enough compared to the first or third. Once you are training five days a week, you should be getting a lot better at CrossFit. If not, we as coaches will be there to help you identify why you’re not progressing as fast as you could be. This usually involves identifying weak points and helping you eliminate them through focused supportive or accessory work.

If your goals are a little more specific, it would behoove you to remember that CrossFit is an intentionally broad, general, and inclusive training modality, centered around measurable work capacity. That doesn’t specifically mean anything about doing pull ups. So if you want to get better at doing pull ups in a more timely fashion than waiting for them to roll around once or twice a week in WODs, well then, you gotta work on ‘em! You can do a variety of programs to help you improve, but we recommend the two below as a starting point:

You might also be asking, “What’s normal?” “How much should I be doing?” and other similar questions. So here’s a guideline to try and help you judge the relative effort your putting in versus the results you are looking to achieve.

  • 1 day per week: This may help you ward off chronic illnesses a little while longer. You may even make some new friends. Don’t expect a lot of fitness benefits unless you are starting from a very low level
  • 2 days per week: If you were previously inactive, this will help you start to accumulate some of the benefits of regular exercise. If you are young, healthy and already active, this is likely not enough to move forward.
  • 3 days per week: This is where the magic starts to happen. If you want to slowly but surely increase your strength and work capacity, this is the starting place for most people. You will learn skills, accumulate fitness and become a part of a thriving community here.
  • 4 days per week: This is a great schedule for someone that’s serious about improving their health and performance, but maybe not ‘going to the Games’ serious. Given enough time (2-3 years), someone attending at this frequency will become one of the top performers in our classes. You can reasonably expect to snatch your own bodyweight, achieve a muscle up or handstand push up, achieve a 6 minute mile.
  • 5 days per week: Now you are training more days than not, and several 2 or 3 day in a row segments in an average training period. You must manage recovery and nutrition if you want to burn this bright, but if you do, a high level of performance awaits you.
  • 6+ days per week: This is the domain of the athlete that sees Crossfit as a sport and wishes to pursue the highest possible outcome they can in that domain. Two-a-days are not uncommon, nor is special homework before and after class, and frequent self care (chiropractic care, massage therapy etc). With this level of commitment you can expect to look like a superhero and do things that mere mortals can not.

Hopefully these guidelines can help you to match your level of effort and your expected results in Crossfit.

Use them with an understanding that there will be individual differences, and if you have additional questions, don’t hesitate to ask!